The liturgical year is a system of yearly church celebrations by which the faithful repeatedly relive the salutary mysteries of their salvation. In the liturgical year Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to live with us, to teach us, and to lead us to our heavenly destination.
The liturgical year, like a beautifully painted iconostasis (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 14), again and again places before our eyes Christ’s sublime work of redemption in order to keep us intimately united to our Divine Redeemer. It inspires us and gradually forms a living Christ in us ” until we become a perfect man” (Eph. 4:13). It is indeed “a year of grace,” a year of God’s favor.
1. The Church follows the computation of time according to the civil calendar year. However, in the Byzantine Rite, the liturgical year begins on September 1st, while the Western Churches begin their liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent.
The Byzantine Church inaugurated the first of September as the beginning of the liturgical year in honor of the victory of Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337 A.D.), over his adversary, Emperor Maxentius, in 312 A.D. Prior to Constantine, Christianity was constantly exposed to persecution. But with Constantine’s victory, as attested to by St. Ambrose (d. 397 A.D.), the Church began a new life.
The liturgical year in the Byzantine Church ends with the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29) , with whom the Old Testament also concludes. The New Testament, liturgically symbolized by the New Year, begins with the preaching of Our lord, as indicated by the Evangelist: “After John’s arrest Jesus appeared in Galilee, proclaiming the good news:-The time has come and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1 :14-15). Hence the liturgical year is often referred to as “a year of salvation.”
The liturgical year is inaugurated by the message of the Prophet Isaiah, which Jesus applied to Himself : “The Spirit of the lord is upon me, for He has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news, to announce a year of grace (favor) from the lord” (lk. 4:16-19). In this way the beginning of the liturgical year symbolizes the beginning of the New Testament, inaugurated by the preaching of the gospel (good news) in the person of Jesus Christ, the Anointed One of God.
2. From the earliest Apostolic times the Christians were convinced that they must celebrate the saving work of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by recalling the salutary mysteries of salvation on certain days of the year. The starting paint was the weekly commemoration of Christ’s resurrection on Sunday.
Thus Sunday for the Christians became-the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) , supplanting the Sabbath of the Old Testament. Every week on Sunday the Christians commemorated the resurrection of Christ by the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, referred to by the Acts as ” the breaking of bread” (Acts 20 :7) . The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, compiled at the turn of the first century, admonished the faithful : “On the Lord ‘s Day, after you come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist” (14, 1).
The early Church , commemorating the resurrection of Christ every Sunday, did not neglect the yearly commemoration of the glorious event and, from the early days, celebrated the Feast of Easter with great solemnity. As a matter of fact Easter became the core of the liturgical year and was referred to as “The Feast of feasts and Solemnity of solemnities.”
3. In the early centuries there arose a heated controversy as to the date of the celebration of Easter. The question was finally resolved at the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) when it was determined that Easter had to be celebrated every year on the first Sunday, following the full moon after the spring equinox. According to this rule, the earliest date upon which Easter can be celebrated is March 22, and the latest, April 25. But it always must be on Sunday.
Since the date of Easter changes from year to year, the Sundays, the holy seasons and the festivals that depend on Easter form the so called-Cycle of the Movable Feasts. The Movable or Easter Cycle begins four weeks before Lent with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, and serves as a litu rgical preparation for that Holy Season.
The Great Lent, in preparation for Easte r, starts on the Monday after Cheese Fare Sunday (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 13). The sixth Sunday of Lent, called Palm Sunday in commemoration of Christ’s solemn entrance into Jerusalem (In. 12:1 2-19), introduces us into the Passion or the Holy Great Week, during which we relive the sufferings and the death of our Lord, endured for our salvation. Then, on Easter Sunday, we suddenly burst into the joyous celebration of Christ’s glorious resurrection.
On the 40th day after Easter we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, commemorating the ascent of our Lord to heaven (Lk. 24:50-53 .) Ten days later, i.e. on the fift ieth day after Easter, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost in commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spi ri t, when the Church was solemnly inaugurated (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 3) .
Pentecost is followed by the series of 32 Sundays, indicated by successive numbers, the first of which is called All Saints Sunday. The Easter Cycle of the movable feasts ends with the 32nd Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Sunday of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).
4. The second cycle which influenced the formation of the litu rgical year is-the Cycle of the Immovable Feasts, at the center of which we find the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, celebrated since the turn of the fourth century, on the 25th of December (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 5) . These feasts are call ed-immovable because, unlike the feasts of the Easter Cycle, they fall on the same day of the month every year and thei r date never changes.
Eight days after Christmas, on January 1, we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision and the naming of the Child Jesus, as indicated by Scriptu re (Lk. 2:21 ). On February 2, forty days after Christ’s birth, we solemnly commemorate the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 12). The Feast of the Annunciation, known in early days as the Conception of Our Lord, is observed nine months before Christ’s nativity, that is on the 25th of March.
One of the most ancient feasts of this cycle is celebrated on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ’s divinity at His baptism, commemorated by the solemn Blessing of the Water on that day (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 9). Then on August 6th we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 18). Finally, on the 14th of September we commemorate the finding of the instrument of our salvation by st. Helen (d. 333 A.D.), as we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Venerable Cross (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 8).
Thus our Church, through the annual celebration of the Lord’s feasts, repeatedly unfolds to us the riches of Christ’s merits and salutary graces.
5. In celebrating the mysteries of our salvation we cannot exclude the Holy Mother of God (Theotokos), since she played an important role in the economy of our salvation. And we are happy to know that precisely the Byzantine Rite is characterized by its high esteem and veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Already at the beginning of the liturgical year, on September 8th, we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, since Mary’s birth signalled “the beginning of our salvation” (cf. Stich era of Utia). In connection with Mary’s birth, since the eighth century, we celebrate the Feast of the Conception of the Mother of God, recently referred to as the Immaculate Conception (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 36).
At the beginning of the 10th century the Feast of the Patronage of the Mother of God was introduced which with time became a great inspiration to the Ruthenian people in their filial devotion to the Blessed Mother of God (ct. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n. 1). Since the 8th century we also celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple (November 21 st).
There are several minor feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the liturgical year ends with the oldest Marian feast, the Dormition, known in the Western Church as the Assumption. It is solemnly celebrated to the present time on the 15th of August (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, n.11).
6. The Church Fathers also included the commemoration of many Martyrs and other Saints in the liturgical year. The II Vatican Council reminds us that the Martyrs and Saints, being “raised to holiness by abundant graces of God and already in possession of their eternal salvation, sing constant praises to God in heaven and offer prayers for us” (ct. Decree on the Liturgy, n. 104). By celebrating the passage of the Saints from the earth to heaven, the Church also proposes them to us as so many examples of genuine Christian living.
The veneration of the Saints has a similar purpose. This began in the first century, first the Veneration of the Martyrs and then of the Apostles. Soon other Saints were added. Between the fourth and the fifth centuries the veneration of the Saints became a general practice, ceding the first place to St. John the Baptist (after the Blessed Mother and the Angels), in view of Christ’s testimony: “There is no one greater than John!” (Lk. 7:28). The Saints usually are commemorated on the anniversary of their death, since the departure of those “that died in the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) was considered by the Christians as a day of birth to a new and happy life with God.
The liturgical year is indeed a year of grace and our sanctification, keeping us in close union with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The liturgical year helps us to become more and more Christ-like, it molds Christ within us. In a word, through the liturgical year Jesus Christ continues to live among us, He continues to teach us, He continues to lead us toward our eternal salvation.